Dwane Casey

Toronto fires Dwane Casey

Just two days after being awarded NBA’s Coach of the Year award, Dwane Casey was fired by the Toronto Raptors.

Casey led the Raptors to a franchise-best 59-23 record in 2018, securing them the East’s top seed. While they won their first-round series against the Washington Wizards, Toronto was swept by LeBron and the Cavaliers in the semifinals.

This marked the third time in three years Cleveland ousted Casey’s Raptors from the playoffs. It was also the second year in a row the Raptors were swept out of the second round. In the 2015-2016 NBA season, the Cavs and Raptors met in the Eastern Conference Finals (in Toronto’s first trip ever) before falling in six games.

Playoff woes

During his seven-year tenure with Toronto, Dwane Casey led the Raptors to playoff berths in five straight seasons. Three of those five playoff appearances ended in sweeps. In 2015 it came at the hands of the Washington Wizards. As previously mentioned, the other two were the work of James and the Cavaliers.

Dwane Casey

Casey coaches DeMar DeRozan. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Does this speak to a coach that fails to make adjustments? Or has it simply been bad luck?

The Raptors brass seems to believe it is the former. Their President, Masai Ujiri, released a statement today saying that “this is a very difficult, but necessary step the franchise must take,” as they try to get over the hump and find their way to the NBA Finals for the first time.

With the exception of a five-game dip from 2016 to 2017, Casey saw his team’s record improve with every season he was in Toronto. Culminating in the best regular season the Raptors have ever had.

Regular season records do not mean much, however, if the team does not hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. Just ask the 2016 Golden State Warriors.

Coach of the Year?

Casey’s peers voted him Coach of the Year for 2018 on May 9. Two days later he is unemployed. What is worth noting is that, while the award is his, he has not accepted it yet. That comes on June 25th, at a special ceremony, which might end up being a little awkward.

Firing the Coach of the Year because he had the unenviable task of facing LeBron James is a questionable decision at best. After all, LeBron-led teams have blown through the rest of the Eastern Conference in seven straight seasons. By that logic, every coach that has faced LeBron since 2010 has grounds to be let go.

Given his credentials and his proven ability to increase win records, Casey will probably not be out of a job for long. It would be surprising if the summer ends without him holding some sort of coaching position.

Summary

NBA fans shouldn’t weep for Casey for long. Instead, they should take the time to appreciate LeBron James. He is, without a doubt, the driving force behind this firing. Because he took Toronto to task for three straight years, Dwane Casey no longer has a job.

Dwane Casey

Casey and Raptors superfan Drake stand courtside. (Photo by Richard Madonik/Toronto Star)

Another factor could be his inability to maximize Lowry and DeRozan, but that blame should be split 50-50 between the players and the coach. Casey can draw up the offensive sets, but he cannot make the ball go in the basket. He can suggest innovative ways to defend LeBron, but he cannot stop him from being the best player in the world.

All in all, Toronto has some soul searching to do. After shaking their Game 1 woes in their first-round series, the choker label was plastered on the franchise yet again after running into the NBA’s most consistent buzz saw. Needless to say, if the Pacers had not lost in their Game 7 against LeBron, Casey might still be holding a clipboard.

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0-3

Inside the NBA’s 0-3 conundrum

The NBA playoffs have already yielded one sweep in the first round. Two more semifinals series are on the verge of ending in just four games.

It is well known that the NBA is the only one of the three major American sports which feature playoff series that has never seen an 0-3 comeback. The NHL and MLB have both had this unlikely event happen at least once.

Most intriguing is that this kind of comeback seems more likely in the NBA than either the NHL or MLB. The NHL relies on physicality, goal scoring and goalie play, one of which can usually stay consistent to complete a series win. The MLB, as any sports fan will tell you, is impossible to predict on a game-to-game basis. Momentum plays a huge roll and the team in the 0-3 hole has a massive task robbing the opposing team of it. On top of that, pitching and hitting needs to be near flawless for four games straight.

In the NBA, however, teams can flat-out go cold from the floor. A defense can be exploited, and shots falling can rattle even the best teams. As Brad Stevens of the Celtics has proven, a solid game plan can defeat better talent.

Here, we will take a look at the teams that are currently up 3-0, how they got there, and what the road to history looks like for the teams trying to claw out of that hole.

History

In the history of the NBA playoffs, teams up three games to none are 129-0 in their series.

0-3

Antonio McDyess and P.J. Brown meet at the rim during the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals (Photo by Getty Images)

In those 129 series, only nine of them have seen the team down 0-3 get to a Game 6. Of those nine series, only three of them have gone to a Game 7. The most recent example is the 2007 Bulls-Pistons semifinal round when the Bulls forced a Game 6 after going down 0-3. The last forced Game 7 was back in 2003 when Portland came back against the Dallas Mavericks. Portland eventually lost by 12 points in the winner-take-all matchup.

Teams winning series after being down three games to one is much more common. In fact, in the 2016 NBA playoffs, it happened twice. The Golden State Warriors came back on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. In the NBA Finals, that same Golden State team blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

So where is the disconnect? Why is it so hard to win four NBA games in a row?

Common sense would say fatigue.

Of the three series that have gone to Game 7 after a team went up 3-0, the average margin of defeat in that Game 7 has been eight points. That stat suggests the losing team had enough to give to keep it close, but had spent enough to lose the hustle battle.

As stated earlier, game plans can beat talent. So playing a single team seven times in a row can allow either team to cancel out certain strategies. It is likely that this would come into play in a winner-take-all game more so than the games leading up to it.

Simply put, a lot of factors go into winning four games in a row. Defense, the ability to make shots, hustle plays and coaching. Coming back from an 0-3 deficit is not an impossibility, and the NBA will eventually see this kind of come back. It just simply has not happened yet.

0-3 Teams

In the semifinal round, both the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers are up on their opponents 3-0.

Boston, without its two best players, has bested the younger Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. All but written off, regardless of their second seed, this injured Boston team has proved NBA pundits wrong at every turn. In my series preview, I even picked the Sixers to win in six games.

0-3

Dario Saric after the Celtics lost Game 3 in overtime. (Photo by Getty Images)

In a postgame interview on Saturday night, Stephen A. Smith of ESPN alleged that Brett Brown has lost the 76ers all three of these games. The latest mistake being unable to run a play in overtime that did not involve Joel Embiid being near the top of the key. On the inbound play, down by one, the Sixers had the ball stolen by Al Horford, which demanded free throws be taken to increase the Celtics’ cushion to three points.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are up by three games on the best team in the East, the Toronto Raptors. This is due to the ageless LeBron James, and some remedying of problems that plagued the Cavs in their seven-game series against Indiana.

James has scored 26, 43 and 38 points in the first three games respectively. This includes another incredible buzzer beater in Game 3. The Raptors have a reputation of falling apart against these Cavaliers, as they have lost to Cleveland in the last two NBA playoffs.

While the Cavs can become a steamroller during the playoffs, this Raptors team is definitely stronger than past iterations. They have a great bench, two legitimate stars and two great role players. While the Raptors lifted their Game 1 woes during their series against the Wizards, it seems like Cleveland may really be their kryptonite.

Road to Game 7

While a series win is obviously the goal, first these teams will have to reach Game 7. According to history, only 2.3 percent of teams down 0-3 have reached that point. Then, they have to win that game, which no one ever has.

For the 76ers, the road starts with finding better plays in late game situations. Embiid may be their best player, but he is not their only solid option. Belinelli was clutch in Game 3, with a buzzer-beating shot to send the game to overtime. His 3-pointer to try to tie the game in the closing seconds of overtime was almost good, too. Ben Simmons is struggling, and he is a terrible shooter anyway. But he does not need to be inbounding the ball on the final play. He should be cutting to the hoop or ready to pass.

The 76ers also blew a 22 point lead in Game 2. So saying that the Sixers need to build a lead is not enough. Their foot needs to stay on the gas, and they need to forgo the early shot clock jumpers that built them the lead. The Celtics are too well coached to be out of any individual game. Both teams play great defense, but Philly’s offense has been their Achilles’ Heel.

0-3

Valanciunas goes to the floor during the Raptors’ Game 2 meltdown against the Cavaliers. (Photo by Nathan Dennette/Canadian Press via AP)

If they can find a way to stop their own bleeding and get out of their own way, they can make a comeback. As far as Game 7 goes, the Celtics will be formidable, as Brad Stevens’ game plan will almost assuredly be better than Brett Brown’s. But the Sixers have the raw talent necessary to maybe surprise everyone.

Speaking of getting out of their own way, the Raptors have to have some serious conversations with themselves about their identity if they don’t want to get swept out of this second round.

As the East’s top seed the Raptors were supposed to be the favorites to reach the NBA Finals. As it stands now, it seems as if history is doomed to repeat itself. The last two years have seen Toronto be a stepping stone on Cleveland’s path towards the NBA Finals. Shockingly down 0-3, they must not only erase their own history but make NBA history in the process.

The key is to stop LeBron James. This is possibly the toughest thing any team in the NBA could be asked to do, but it is truly the only way. James is currently averaging 34.8 points per game in the entire playoffs and 35.7 points in the series. DeRozan was benched in the fourth quarter of Game 3 due to lack of production, which cannot happen again, because Lowry and DeRozan need to be the ones to stop that bleeding.

Kevin Love is averaging 13.9 points per game, as Cleveland’s second best scoring option. If Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas can play up to their potential, that would cancel out Cleveland’s small, but important, safety valve. Past that, VanVleet, Anunoby and the rest of the role players just need to contribute consistently on both ends of the court.

The formula is deceptively simple for Toronto to find their way to Game 7. If that should come to pass, then they will have to get past elimination-game LeBron, who is, somehow, even better than the LeBron they have been seeing the past three games.

Summary

In conclusion, these will probably not be the series where the NBA finally sees an 0-3 comeback. It will eventually happen, just as a 16 seed upsetting a number one seed finally happened in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, but the two teams that find themselves up 3-0 are too talented and driven to lose to their opponents.

Toronto may be able to force a Game 6, as they will pull out all the stops to halt LeBron’s historic performances, but James, as he always does, will eventually get the best of them.

Philadelphia is showing its youth. The coaching is simply not good, Simmons is playing horribly and teams cannot win against a Stevens-led team with just a center and some backup wing players. The injured Celtics will continue to defy all expectations and knock them out. As far as forcing a Game 5 or 6, the 76ers may be able to pull out a close one, but do not count on it.

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playoffs

Raptors vs. Cavaliers series preview (after Game 1)

The NBA playoffs feature some great second-round matchups. But perhaps more exciting than any of them is this Eastern Conference Semifinal round featuring Toronto and Cleveland.

The Toronto Raptors finally own the East’s number one seed, while fourth-seeded Cleveland needed all seven games to get past the Indiana Pacers. 2018 marks the third year in a row that these two teams have met in the playoffs.

According to sources from Sports Betting Dime, Raptors are the favorite to win (-260) against the Cavaliers (+220).

The regular season and roster point towards the Raptors. The recent history favors the Cavaliers. Here is The Game Haus’ analysis after a closely contested Game 1.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs’ up and down season carries over into the playoffs and continues to give Cleveland fans everywhere palpitations.

Coming off of a grueling seven-game series against the scrappy Indiana Pacers, the Cavaliers now face the top team in the Eastern Conference. No easy task, but Cleveland has clawed its way past the Raptors in the past two NBA playoffs.

After Sunday’s Game 7 win over Indiana, LeBron James said he was tired and, “ready to go home.” This may be the very first time in James’ quest for eight straight finals appearances where he has admitted fatigue.

playoffs

LeBron James recorded his 21st playoff triple-double in Game 1. (Photo by Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

It makes sense, though, considering all four wins in the first round series came by only 14 points combined. If that does not paint a picture of a hard-fought series, nothing does. Add on that James had the entire roster on his back through all seven games, even rabid LeBron haters would say he deserved the rest.

Through eight games, LeBron is averaging 33.4 points, 8.4 assists and 10.1 rebounds. He has climbed to number two in the all-time playoff triple-doubles, with 21. This includes a triple-double in yesterday’s Game 1 overtime win.

Those 33.4 points per game are good for first among all playoff scorers. To put into perspective just how much The King is willing his team to victory, the next closest Cleveland player is Kevin Love at number 62.

With Game 1 decided by just one point in overtime, it is clear that the Cavaliers will have their hands full yet again. LeBron must keep scoring in bunches, and Kevin Love cannot keep disappearing if they want four NBA Finals in a row. Taking James out of the game is nigh impossible, but Cleveland struggles when he gets no help. Getting players not named LeBron should be their focus from here on out, because The King will get his.

Toronto Raptors

Toronto may have more to prove than any other team in the playoffs. They are a perennially good team, but have never advanced past the Eastern Conference Finals in franchise history. With this core, a fantastic bench and great coaching, it seems like this should be their year.

In their seven games, their All-Star backcourt of DeRozan and Lowry are scoring at a clip of 26 and 17.3 points per game, respectively. The team is scoring 109.6 points per game, which is fifth among playoff teams. Their defense is allowing 108 points per game to opponents, which is good for sixth best.

Their previous series against the Raptors came in six games. The first round series was full of double-digit wins for both sides. It seems as if when a team gives the Raptors trouble, they really give them trouble. That has been the story of the Raptors and Cavaliers history of late.

playoffs

Valanciunas and Lowry after missing several potential game-winning shots in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter. (Photo by Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

As previously mentioned, the Cavs have ousted Toronto during the previous two playoffs. This time, though, the Raptors clearly have the superior roster and the better regular season record.

But their old ways reared their head again. “The North” blew a 10 point lead with less than 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

The Cavaliers have beaten Toronto in nine of their last 11 playoff matchups. It seems as if LeBron is truly their kryptonite. Their path to victory narrows with every shot he makes. The game plan for them, here should not be to take him out of the game. It should be making sure that the rest of the Cavaliers’ roster continues to play as poorly as they have been during these playoffs.

A one-point overtime loss in game one after having and missing eight second-chance opportunities in the last five minutes is debilitating, to say the least. But if they are going to advance further in these playoffs, it is poetic that they must go through the Cavs.

All in all, Toronto needs to be confident in the fact that their roster is better, and try to forget Game 1 and the past two years. This Cavaliers team is vulnerable, and coach Dwane Casey needs to exploit their weak spots.

Preview and Predictions

Although it seems like the Raptors should be the ones worrying, it really should be the Cavaliers’ lack of production that will be the focal point of this series.

The bench matchups here are what Toronto can win, and win big. Cleveland uses so many different lineups because they are unsure what will work on a nightly basis. Toronto does not have that problem. Their bench is one of the best in the NBA and they can absolutely dominate these haphazard Cavs lineups.

Since they are playing the best player in the league, DeRozan and Lowry will both have to show up every night. One needs to cancel out LeBron’s points, while the other pads the lead.

Serge Ibaka will win his matchup against Love if he can deny him the ball. Love tends to fade into the background if he does not get going early enough. Tristan Thompson is mired in off-court controversy, but he is playing some great basketball. If this trend continues, he can overshadow a clearly superior center in Valanciunas.

A prediction here is hard because so many things come into play. Including and especially recent history. Toronto has to do everything in their power to put the Cavaliers away early. Cleveland panics when down too much and takes ill-advised shots. If the Cavs can keep it close, though, it is very much LeBron time, which will probably win them the game.

If this series goes the distance, the Cavaliers will probably walk away victorious. However, faith needs to be put in the Raptors that they want to shake off the “chokers” label they have amassed through the years.

Raptors in six

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Game 7

Playoff teams most likely to win a Game 7

“The two best words in sports,” is the cliche often used to describe a Game 7.

A winner-take-all game is always exciting. Whether it is in the first round of the playoffs, or for the championship. Whether a person considers themselves a casual or rabid sports fan, it always feels like must-watch TV. A moment that will allow you to say “I was there when…”

With the NBA playoffs heating up, and the games getting more and more important as teams climb the ladder towards the NBA Finals, it is time to take a look at the teams most likely to win those games.

Here are the teams with the rosters most suited to win a Game 7, if a series should come down to it.

Golden State Warriors

Saying the Warriors can win one game is a little like saying that the sky is blue. But for sake of the argument, let’s look at their credentials.

As the dynasty has taken shape, the Warriors have only had to play two seven game series. Back to back, no less. Both series were infamous in their own ways.

The first was in the Western Conference Finals against the Thunder, before Kevin Durant switched sides. The second was the NBA Finals, as the best regular season team of all time fell to LeBron and the Cavaliers in Game 7.

The difference here is the aforementioned Kevin Durant acquisition. The Cavaliers proved to be too much for the Warriors in Oakland in 2016, but Golden State “only” had two prolific scorers back then, not three.

Game 7

Draymond Green drives to the hoop against Manu Ginobili during Tuesday’s Game 5 win. (Photo by Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

Stephen Curry is slated for a return in the second round, assuming the Warriors finish off San Antonio. With him, Durant, Thompson, Green and their fantastic bench, it is going to take a fantastic team to take them to seven games, let alone win the series.

It seems as if the Warriors and the Rockets are on a collision course for Western Conference dominance. If that happens, then a potential Game 7 would take place in Houston, as the Rockets had the best record in the NBA. Against any other team, a Game 7 would be in Oakland.

Golden State, though, had the same record at home and on the road during the regular season, at 29-12. Obviously, the Warriors would like to play in front of their own fans, but a road game does not necessarily put the team at a disadvantage.

The Warriors can beat any given team, and have. With a fully healthy squad and the multitudes of playoff experience, betting against them in a winner-take-all game might be a fool’s errand.

Houston Rockets

Speaking of the Rockets, it is hard to deny that their offensive capabilities can overtake any team on any given night.

There is one obvious and pressing question facing Houston, however. Can they shrug off the idea that they are chokers, or that they lay down when the playoffs roll around?

Game 7

Paul and Harden celebrate during a game against the Denver Nuggets. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images)

This is clearly a different Rockets team than we have seen in the past. The efficiency and shooting is off the charts, and they play legitimate defense. Chris Paul and James Harden have ditched their ball-hogging ways in favor of pacing and rhythm. Their three point shooting is historic, but does not hamstring their mid-range or low-post games.

The problem, though, is that if a team is going to commit to the jump shot, then they have to fall to stand a chance. Any and every team can go cold on a given night, and it will be especially memorable and demoralizing if that happens in a Game 7.

Houston’s home record is three games better than their road record (34-7 versus 31-10). That is good news, considering they will probably have home court advantage, regardless of their opponent.

The key to winning a Game 7 for Houston is to bury the opposing team early. As the Timberwolves have been well aware during their series with the Rockets, no lead is a comfortable one. When almost every player on the floor can score in bunches, problems arise for opposing defenses.

Riding their shooting abilities and continuing to play their brand of fast-paced basketball on both ends on the floor is their bread and butter. If the Rockets find themselves in a Game 7 situation, their opposing team will be preaching that every other statistic and record is irrelevant, and that anything can happen in a one game series.

That should not be Houston’s approach. The Rockets would need to go into that game remembering that they are the number one overall seed for a reason.

Toronto Raptors

Toronto is also on a quest to shake off some preconceived notions about their playoff performances. For the first time in franchise playoff history, the Raptors won a Game 1. So far, so good, but this team still has some proving of itself to do.

Not unlike the Rockets, the Raptors also seem to be different this year than in years past. In 2016, they lost in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2017, they were swept in the second round. Both series losses were to the Cavaliers, as they made their way to the NBA Finals.

Since 1996, the Raptors have played just two seven game series. The most recent was in 2016, as they beat the Pacers in Game 7 to earn their first-ever trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Game 7

DeRozan hangs on the rim after a dunk. (Photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star)

This is a much, different team, though. DeRozan and Lowry are a dangerous backcourt duo when they are both on, and the role players have never been this good. Between those two and Valanciunas, Ibaka, and one of the most productive benches in the NBA, it seems as if Toronto can take on any team in the league at their best.

Coach Dwane Casey has balanced star power with fundamentals as well as any coach in the league, including Steve Kerr. Toronto rode that game plan to the East’s best record, and a chance to disprove doubters once and for all.

Toronto is much better at home than on the road. Considering they are the East’s number one seed, that should work out just fine. Unless they face a Game 7 matchup if they are able to reach the NBA Finals. At 25-16, their road record is a full nine games worse than their home record. Considering the Raptors’ rabid fanbase, that is not very surprising.

Much has been made of Lowry’s postseason struggles, and DeRozan’s feast or famine performances. But the fantastic bench and great defense can mask those issues in a single game. Sometimes, bench performance can be the difference in those games. Although, stars playing to their fullest potential is always the goal.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Here, it would probably be sufficient to write the words “LeBron James” and be done with it. But, while he is the heart and soul of the team, he is not the only player on the floor.

Cleveland’s struggles this year have largely been the focal point of the entire season. At the end of the day, though, this team can win close games.

Game 7

James embraces Love after their Game 7 NBA Finals win. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

J.R. Smith is a spotty shooter. Kevin Love essentially disappears if the team does not feed him the ball enough. Nance, Jr., Hood, and Green are all good complimentary pieces, but tend to shrivel under the spotlight. At any point, though, everyone just mentioned could play second fiddle to LeBron’s heroics. If they are all on, then teams are going to have a hard time figuring out what to do with the Cavaliers.

Lest we forget, the LeBron-led Cavs dethroned the Warriors in that historic Game 7. James also won a Game 7 against the Spurs in 2013. He is, without much argument, the best player in the world, and he can take over games at will.

Nothing would will James to a victory like a championship-or-bust one game series.

Tyronn Lue and the Cavs have beaten the best regular season team in NBA history in a Game 7. And while this iteration is much different, and not without its glaring issues, if the Cavaliers find themselves in this position again, it is hard to bet against The King.

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first round

NBA playoff roundup: Summaries and analysis after two games

The first round of the NBA playoffs is here.

With every series shifting to the lower seeded team’s home court, it is time to take a look at where each team stands matching up with their opponent, some potential focus changes and predictions on how the next games will shake out.

Here is a summary of every series now that the first two games are in the books.

Eastern Conference

Raptors vs. Wizards

The Toronto Raptors finally shook the first game monkey off of their backs.

Up until Saturday, the franchise had never won the first game of a playoff series. Now, they hold their first-ever 2-0 lead.

Game 1 ended in a 116-104 win for the Raptors, although the final score does not quite tell the whole story. Toronto started off well, and got out to an early lead. By the end of the third, though, they only lead by one point. The bench players sealed the win in the fourth quarter, which is unsurprising, as Toronto’s bench has been fantastic all season.

first round

Lowry guards Wall during Game 1. (Photo by Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Game 2 was all Raptors, as the Wizards could not keep up after Toronto put up a 44-point first quarter. DeRozan led all scorers with 37 points, as the game wrapped with a 130-119 final score.

Although players like Serge Ibaka and Mike Scott have been terrific, the real story here is the battle of the backcourts. DeRozan and Lowry are winning this battle handily. Lowry is averaging 12 points and 10.5 assists, and DeRozan is giving the Raptors 27 points and 5 assists.

Wall seems to have no more rust to shake off, however, as he is putting up 26 points per game, and distributing at a clip of 12.5 assists per game. While Beal, who has played all year and earned his first All-Star appearance, can only muster 14 points and 3.5 assists.

The series is now shifting to Washington, but that is not necessarily a gigantic advantage. The Raptors away record is two games better than the Wizards’ home record. Expect the home crowd to give the Wiz a boost, but if the Raptors continue their trend of incredibly timely scoring, this series could be over in four or five games.

Celtics vs. Bucks

Although the Celtics are up 2-0 in the series, it has not been as lopsided as the record indicates.

In Game 1, Boston needed overtime to beat the seventh-seeded Bucks, after Khris Middleton knocked down a Hail Mary 3-pointer with 0.5 on the clock. It was a game of runs, as Boston had a 15-0 run to end the first quarter, with Milwaukee answering with a 21-5 run in the second. It was only fitting that a game that back and forth got an extra period.

As the old adage goes, though, better teams win in overtime. The Celtics outscored the Bucks 14-8 in bonus time, and took the win.

Game 2 ended with a 120-106 Celtics victory, but the Bucks were not hopelessly behind for the entire game. Rather, they hung around, but just could not muster the defense necessary to hold off Boston’s balanced attack.

As expected, Antetokounmpo has been the driving force behind Milwaukee, averaging 32.5 points and 11 rebounds in the two games. Middleton, the Game 1 hero, has been a scoring machine, giving the Bucks 31 points in the first game and 25 in the second. Outside of the Greek Freak’s 13 rebound performance in Game 1, though, no other Buck has had a double-digit rebound game. This likely has contributed to their 0-2 hole.

Without Kyrie Irving, the Celtics have looked just fine. In Game 1, four Celtics scored 20 or more, with Jayson Tatum only being one point shy of making it five. Six of Boston’s players had double-digit scoring games in Game 2. Not bad for an injury-laden team whose offense was written off after the All-Star break.

If the Bucks can break out of some bad habits and lackluster defense, they could even this series at home. But look for the Celtics to take the series with their more complete team and better coaching. Biding time until Marcus Smart can return in May, Boston has a lot to play for.

76ers vs. Heat

This series has been great, and will likely stay that way.

The “watchability” factor is due in part to the fact that Game 1 was an absolute blowout. The 76ers carried their cocky attitude and potent offensive attack into the playoffs to the tune of a 130-103 win. Even without Embiid locking down the paint, this young Sixers team found ways to score and keep Miami from doing much offensively.

Veterans and newbies stepped up for Philadelphia in the 27-point drubbing of Miami. Redick and Belinelli contributed 28 and 25 points, respectively, while Saric gave a 20-point performance. Ben Simmons, the possible Rookie of the Year, was one rebound shy of a triple-double, and Ilyasova turned in a double-double. There is not much an opposing team can do about that.

first round

Wade against Simmons in Game 2. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

The story of Game 2 was vintage Dwyane Wade rearing his head. Wade played outside of his mind, scoring 28 points. He was playing off of the ball, however, only tallying three assists. Five other Miami players scored in double figures, including Dragic’s 20-point performance.

Saric and Simmons both had good second games, but while they received support scoring-wise, the defense was not enough to stop the Heat.

As the series moves to Miami, it will be the talk of the NBA if Wade can keep playing at this level. With Embiid still out, the series is up for grabs, as the mixed veteran and young talent of Miami tries to take advantage of the 76ers’ mostly inexperienced roster.

Hopefully, we are looking at a classic seven-game first round series.

Cavaliers vs. Pacers

The Pacers put an end to LeBron’s historic 21-game first round winning streak in Game 1 of this series. Considering all of Cleveland’s struggles this season, it is not really that surprising this is the year it came to an end.

In Game 1, the Pacers were on a mission to earn some respect. In the first quarter, they outscored the Cavs 33-14, and did not look back. Victor Oladipo, as he has been all year, was the focal point of Indiana’s offense. He scored 32 easily, while Stephenson, Turner and Bogdanovic all had double-digit scoring games.

LeBron had a triple-double, putting the Cavs on his back. It was not nearly enough, however, as they lost by 18 points on their home court. Only two other Cavaliers scored more than nine points, which cued the calls of “LeBron needs more help.”

Game 2 was a full-fledged LeBron takeover, though, as he was determined to not go down 0-2. James had 46 points and 12 rebounds, and outscored the entire Pacers team in the first quarter. As the Pacers cut an 18-point lead down to just four, more LeBron heroics sealed the win, as the Cavs came away with the three-point victory.

Any series featuring this Cavaliers team will be put under a microscope. The issues this team has had are not only well-documented but numerous. The second half of their season was less tumultuous, but it is generally agreed upon that 2018 could possibly put an end to LeBron’s streak of seven straight NBA Finals appearances.

Are the Pacers good enough to knock this battle-tested Cleveland team out in the first round, though? Probably not. Especially if LeBron continues his ageless 2018 campaign. Indiana does have a six-game advantage at home, versus Cleveland’s road record. But the Pacers continue to lean heavily on Oladipo.

Averaging 26 points in these first two games, probable Most Improved Player, Victor Oladipo, has no choice but to keep playing this well if the Pacers want to keep winning. Everyone knows what the Cavaliers can do when they put it all together, so, even though NBA pundits will say otherwise, the pressure is on Indiana to continue to impress.

 

Western Conference

Trail Blazers vs. Pelicans

The Pelicans have taken a surprising 2-0 lead in this third versus sixth seed first round series. It is magnified by the fact that both of these games have taken place in Portland, which features a fantastic home court advantage.

The first game was close, but the margin of victory would have been two possessions, if McCollum did not hit a prayer of a three-pointer at the buzzer. As with many NBA games, the final two minutes were the most exciting of the game. The Trail Blazers were within one point with one minute left, after a McCollum three.

The last minute was punctuated by poor decisions and turnovers by Portland. Not to be overshadowed, though, was some excellent defense by Jrue Holliday, which included a massive block with nine seconds left.

Another bad second half cost Portland Game 2 as well. The Pelicans dominated the turnover game and took advantage of every opportunity handed to them. Playoff Rondo is back in full force, falling one assist shy of a triple-double in Game 2, and had a massive 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter. He even stole the spotlight from Anthony Davis, which is no easy task.

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Jrue Holliday celebrates after a late foul was called against Portland. (Photo by Sean Meagher/Oregon Live)

It is hard to pick the brightest spot on the Pelicans roster over the first two games. Mirotic has proven to be an important addition, averaging 16.5 points and 9.5 rebounds. Jrue Holliday, as mentioned earlier, is playing well on both ends of the floor. Rondo contributed with his passing in Game 1, with 17 assists, and in all areas in Game 2. And of course, Davis has gotten his, with a 35-point, 14 rebound first game, and a 22-point, 13 rebound second game.

On the flip side, it is easy to pick out the problems for the Blazers. Lillard and McCollum have outright failed to carry the team the way that they did during the regular season.

Lillard is averaging 17.5 points, and McCollum has just a 15 point average. This is a far cry from Lillard’s 26.9 point and McCollum’s 21.4 point regular season average. These two simply need to play better, because when they do, the rest of the team feeds off of them. This is not an easy task, however, if Holliday and Rondo are going to continue to guard them as well as they are.

Yet another problem for the Blazers, is that the series now shifts to New Orleans. Not having the home court fans behind them has been a problem for Portland. The team is only one game above .500 on the road. The Pelicans only hold a three-game advantage at home, so expect the series to stay hotly contested.

Thunder vs. Jazz

Back-and-forth games have been the calling card of this series. Both games have been closer than their final scores indicate, due to late-game fouls and free throws. Lead changes are at a premium, and it appears that these two teams are evenly matched.

Game 1 featured two of the “OK3” have terrific nights. Paul George and Russell Westbrook combined for 65 points and 20 assists by themselves. Carmelo Anthony added 15 points and 7 rebounds, which helped carry the Thunder to a win.

Donovan Mitchell continued his dismantling of NBA defenses, with a 27-point night. He was also good for a double-double as he notched 10 rebounds. Six other Jazz players were in double figures in the scoring column, but the OK3’s 80 points were too much for the rookie-led Utah team. Both teams scored over 100, setting the stage for, possibly, the most exciting first-round series, depending on preference.

Continuing that trend, Mitchell did it again on Wednesday, earning 28 points. Derrick Favors turned in a double-double, and Ricky Rubio flirted with a triple-double. There were 13 lead changes in the game, but the last one in the fourth quarter belonged to the Jazz.

Westbrook, George and Anthony combined for 54 in Game 2. But Utah’s scoring was much more timely. The Thunder played well on the offensive end, as they usually do, but the defense that the Jazz are known for kept them ahead when it counted.

If the Thunder’s big three can continue averaging 67 points per game, it simply will be up to the Thunder’s bench to outscore Mitchell. The other big obstacle is Rudy Gobert, who locks down the paint with the best of them.

Utah’s home court advantage is significant, but the Thunder can score anywhere. Westbrook will have to continue to get his teammates involved, and Mitchell will have to play his brand of basketball to keep this series as fascinating as it has been.

Much like the Sixers-Heat series, we could be in line for a seven-game shootout here in the first round.

Warriors vs. Spurs

It seems as if the Warriors are doing just fine without Stephen Curry.

This is looking like the most lopsided series in the first round of the playoffs, because neither Game 1 nor Game 2 were close. The Spurs took minimal leads during Game 2, but they were short-lived. Other than those few instances, it has been all Warriors.

Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are showing their age, and the absence of Kawhi Leonard is glaring. Even the Warriors’ bench is looking to be too much for San Antonio. The Spurs have lost both games by 21 and 15, respectively.

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McGee and Thompson both go up for a block on Dejounte Murray. (Photo by Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

They allowed Durant and Thompson to score over 30 in Game 2. Their only real scoring threat on a consistent basis is LaMarcus Aldridge. Even so, the Warriors can allow him to score whatever he wants as long as they continue to lock down the rest of the offense.

Meanwhile, the Warriors are playing so well that they have managed to take over the series despite just one double-double from any player in either game (Draymond Green, 12 points, 11 assists). Steve Kerr and this Warriors team are not only accustomed to the playoffs, but they have grown used to playing without Curry. Playing without the two-time MVP may not even cost them a game in this round.

The Warriors might perform sweeps of the Spurs in back to back years. Their only hope of salvaging a game is hoping Aldridge can keep repeating his 34 point, 12 rebound performance he put up in Game 2. Along with that, they will need Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili to score 15 or more while playing good defense.

Other than that, all the Spurs have to look forward to is the trip home, where they play well. But it is very likely the advantage will not mean much.

Rockets vs. Timberwolves

Game 1 of this series saw what is probably the closest the Timberwolves will come to snatching a victory away from the best team in the NBA.

Losing by only three points, the Wolves lost their chance to tie on an abysmal final possession that ended with Andrew Wiggins losing the ball out of bounds with less than a second remaining on the clock. Minnesota played well, and Houston played as poorly as they are going to, and it still was not enough.

James Harden went off for 44 points, as he essentially scores at will. Only Capela and Paul could muster offense worth mentioning, as Harden was option number one, two and three for the Rockets.

Burgeoning star Karl-Anthony Towns only took nine shots in the entire game, making three of them. That is not winning basketball for the Wolves. It seems as if their only hope is to overpower the Rockets with Towns in the paint, as Capela makes his shots, but gets no plays ran for him.

Game 2 was the kind of blowout one might expect for the one seed versus eight seed matchups.

The Rockets won by 20, and only needed 12 points from James Harden to do it. Chris Paul was the standout in this game, backed up by Gerald Green. Only three Wolves scored in double-digits, none of them scoring 20 or more.

Frankly, the Timberwolves are outmatched and outclassed. As the series moves to Minneapolis, a crowd that has not seen a playoff game in 14 years may shake the Rockets enough to allow Minnesota to steal a game away, though.

It is going to take more than 6.5 points per game from Towns to do it, though.

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Raptors Wizards preview

Raptors vs. Wizards series preview

The NBA postseason is finally here, with plenty of intriguing matchups.

In the Eastern Conference, the top-seeded Toronto Raptors will be taking on the eighth-seeded Washington Wizards. The Raptors will be looking to prove to the doubters that they are indeed a top-tier team in the league, while the Wizards will be looking to pull off a big upset.

Here is a look at this first-round playoff matchup.

Regular season summary

Raptors

For the first time in team history, the Raptors are a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. The Raptors finished the season 59-23 as one of the most balanced teams in the NBA.

The team was led by the duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. DeRozan averaged 23 points, 3.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game. Lowry averaged 16.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game. Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka and CJ Miles also contributed at least 10 points per game.

Raptors Wizards preview

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are the leaders in Toronto. (Photo by Getty Images)

Offensively, the Raptors finished fourth in points, with 111.7 points per game. They shot the ball efficiently too, finishing seventh in field goal percentage at 47.2 percent. Unlike most of the league’s playoff teams, Toronto scores a lot of its points in the paint as they finished sixth at 48.6 per game. All that time spent inside has also helped them averaged 17.3 made free throws per game, good for ninth in the league.

Toronto also handles the ball very well. They finished sixth in assists and had the sixth fewest turnovers, which put them fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio.

One area they could improve on is 3-point shooting, as they rank 18th at 35.8 percent. It is not terrible, but one of the lower percentages among playoff teams.

Defensively, the Raptors allowed the sixth fewest points per game. They were also fifth in opponent field goal percentage and 11th in opponent 3-point percentage. They rank second in blocks too.

Toronto’s bench also was a major contributor to its success. The bench ranked fifth in points, fourth in field goal percentage, fourth in rebounds, second in assists, second in blocks and first in steals.

It is safe to say the Raptors are one of the more well-rounded teams in the NBA right now.

Wizards

The Wizards have now made the postseason in four of the last five seasons.

Like Toronto, Washington is led by its backcourt. John Wall missed half the season due to injuries, but still managed to average 19.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 9.6 assists per game. Wall’s absence also played a role in the Wizards’ low seed.

Bradley Beal was the main man in Wall’s absence, averaging 22.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. Otto Porter Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr. and Markieff Morris each contributed over 10 points per game as well.

Raptors Wizards preview

Bradley Beal was the top scorer on the Wizards this season. (Photo by Getty Images)

Offensively, the Wizards were a bit above average, ranking 13th in points per game and 11th in field goal percentage. But they finished fourth in 3-point percentage at 37.5 percent. They also pass well as they finished fourth in assists.

Defensively, the Wizards were not bad. They ranked 15th in opponent points, 15th in opponent field goal percentage, sixth in opponent 3-point percentage and 10th in steals. However, they could improve their defense inside. They rank 21st in rebounds, 19th in points allowed in the paint, 21st in opponent second-chance points and 22nd in blocks. If they want to win some games in the playoffs, they will need to play better defense inside and prevent opponents from getting multiple chances to score.

Washington’s bench is also about average, ranking 16th in points, 12th in field goal percentage, 17th in rebounds and 20th in assists.

Breakdown and predictions

Breakdown

The main matchup fans will be watching is between the stars in the backcourt. DeRozan and Lowry against Wall and Beal will definitely be interesting to see.

Things get interesting elsewhere. The Wizards shoot the three better than Toronto, but Toronto does a lot of scoring inside. Toronto’s defense does fairly well at defending 3-pointers, but Washington’s defense does not play well inside.

Toronto’s bench also overmatches Washington’s. Washington’s starters are going to have to put in a lot more work than Toronto’s starters if they want to stay in the game.

Prediction

Toronto and Washington tied in the regular season matchups at 2-2, but do not expect this series to be that close.

Toronto is just too good on both sides of the floor, and their bench can also take care of business. Washington will not be able to defend the Raptors inside. Washington has made it out of the first round in its last three postseason appearances, but not this season.

Having Wall back will be a nice boost for Washington and they may be able to take a game from Toronto, but this series belongs to the Raptors.

Raptors in five

 

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finals

Why each Eastern Conference team can and can’t win the NBA Finals

The NBA Finals have seen the same two teams duke it out for supremacy three years in a row. With legitimate threats to both reigning conference champions on both sides, the landscape of the playoffs already seems different.

Every playoff team has the same goal entering spring basketball, the legitimacy of each team’s claim to the throne has to be weighed because they all do have a shot at the title, however long or short it may seem.

Here are the reasons each Eastern Conference team can and cannot win the 2018 NBA Finals.

No. 8 Seed – Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee has a young core centered around Giannis Antetokounmpo that has the ability to take teams by surprise. Their offense relies heavily on slashing to the basket, which translates to an extremely high field goal percentage.

Antetokounmpo is a certified superstar in the making, and he has the ability to put the team on his back if the jump shots aren’t falling. The other side of that particular coin involves the shooting talent around him being able to bail him out if he is, somehow, guarded successfully.

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Antetokounmpo is the focal point of Milwaukee’s offense and title contention hopes. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/AFP Photo)

What will hold them back from title aspirations is their defense. For every impressive offensive stat, there is a disappointing defensive one.

Their opponents are shooting almost 47 percent from the floor, and 37.1 percent from three-point range. Couple that with the lack of bench depth and inexperience, and the playoffs will be a tough hill to climb.

No. 7 Seed – Washington Wizards

The Wizards are perennial playoff contenders with a very talented roster. John Wall and Bradley Beal make up an impressive backcourt combination, and Marcin Gortat has the rebounding and put back abilities to make things interesting. The wing players, while prone to underachieving, also have high ceilings when they play well.

They are well-coached by Scott Brooks and, hopefully, entering the playoffs at full strength. The Wizards could be a dark horse betting candidates to make a deep playoff run. With enough confidence and momentum behind them, it is not out of the realm of possibility for Washington to compete for a title.

There has been turmoil in the locker room, however. John Wall is just now returning to basketball activities, so the Wizards’ best player will have significant rust to shake off.

That is not a good thing, considering they have to shoot themselves out of deficits more often than they would like. This is due to the same kinds of issues that Milwaukee has had to deal with. Impressive offense is only impressive if a team can keep themselves above water defensively.

No. 6 Seed – Miami Heat

Erik Spoelstra is proving four straight trips to the NBA Finals had more to do with him than NBA fans like to think. Many attribute those accolades solely to having James, Wade and Bosh leading the way.

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Erik Spoelstra and Goran Dragic are big reasons the Heat are back in the playoffs. (Photo by Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)

This young team, though is rising above expectations sooner than expected. Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo are an excellent frontcourt tandem. The Heat are finding their identity in the paint and riding the shooting of Wayne Ellington and experience of Dwayne Wade back to a playoff berth. Spoelstra has clearly found out the right way to utilize these talents.

Young teams can give more experienced teams fits in the playoffs with their athleticism and timing. Miami also has the third-highest scoring bench in the league at 39.6 points per game. Add that to Spoelstra’s overachieving, and they could be a team to watch out for in the relatively weak Eastern Conference. Like the Wizards, the Heat can ride momentum all the way to finals contention.

Shy of Ellington, though, shooters are hard to come by in Miami. They rely on a post-heavy offense, which doesn’t necessarily hold up as well in a seven-game series as it does in an 82-game season.

Their defense is good, sporting the fifth-best opponents’ field goal percentage in the league. But they will be playing against some of the best and most dedicated jump-shooting teams in the league. If their looks start falling, that spells doom for Miami.

No. 5 Seed – Indiana Pacers

Victor Oladipo will undoubtedly win Most Improved Player this year, after showing the league what he’s made of after the Thunder traded him away in the Paul George deal. His points per game average this year is up six points. He is also collecting more assists and rebounds than he ever has.

Oladipo is the secret sauce to a Pacers finals run. He and Myles Turner have put Indiana on their backs this year, and few have been able to contain both of them at the same time. If teams do manage a strategy to keep them both in check, they will have to do it over a series of games, which is no easy task. If these two players can keep digging into their bags, then the Pacers are a team no one would truly want to face.

Again, though, the problem here is lackluster defense. At 18th in the NBA in opponents’ field goal percentage, the Pacers simply let their opponents score too much. Their three-point shooting abilities are good, but almost all of the teams above them in the standings are in the Eastern Conference.

The bench does not give the Pacers many minutes, at less than 17 per game. They are in the bottom five in that category and the bottom ten in bench scoring. So Oladipo and Turner truly have to carry the team if they want to be playing in June.

There is simply too much that can go wrong to call them a true NBA Finals contender. But given Indiana’s identity over the course of the season, that is probably exactly how they like it.

No. 4 Seed – Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers have taken the NBA by surprise this season. A trip to the NBA Finals would cap off “The Process” and prove the brutal teardown and rebuild to be worth it.

Philadelphia is inundated with youth. Ben Simmons is one of two potential Rookie of the Year candidates and continues to dish out triple-doubles. Markelle Fultz is, surprisingly, playing this season, and if he can figure out his shot, it only creates another weapon. Robert Covington and J.J. Reddick are veteran leaders that seem to be drawing off the energy of the young core.

And then there is Joel Embiid.

While currently out due to surgery on an orbital fracture, he has been giving teams trouble all season. Both on and off the court. The trash talk is already legendary, and he has the play to back it up. Embiid averages a double-double at 22.9 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. We have even seen him step outside the arc when the opportunity presents itself.

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Embiid could miss some playoff games after undergoing surgery for an orbital fracture. (Photo by Matt Slocum/Associated Press)

If he can get back in time for a second-round series, this team could legitimately take over. They have been too much for opponents all season, and there is no reason to think that will stop when the playoffs start.

The young squad will be fired up and eager to prove themselves. With their inside-out offense and some of the best defense in the league, they are a legitimate title contender, because they match up well with any team. Including and especially the two favored to be in the Western Conference Finals.

Ironically, though, their biggest strength is also their biggest weakness.

Youth means inexperience. Inexperience means being able to be taken advantage of. Meeting a veteran team like the Cavaliers, who know what it is like to play for and win a title, could be their undoing.

It cannot go without being said that the cockiness of this team is some of the most outspoken in recent memory. Philadelphia knows it is good, which might create a glare that makes them look past other opponents.

Either way, “The Process” will officially undergo its first test on April 14.

No. 3 Seed – Cleveland Cavaliers

The rollercoaster that has been the Cavs’ regular season is finally coming to an end.

After blowing up their roster before the All-Star break, the Cavaliers are sitting pretty as the third seed in the Eastern Conference. As we know, seeding is little more than a formality, as far as LeBron James is concerned.

The new-look Cavs are more youthful, better defensively, and seem less complacent than the pre-trades roster. Their NBA Finals hopes are renewed again after finally finding a formula that works after a multitude of injuries and locker room finger-pointing.

Do not kid yourself, though. The Cavaliers are coasting on reputation more than anything. They have been in the past three NBA Finals, thanks in large part to having the best player in the world on their team. They are the (wine and) gold standard of the Eastern Conference until further notice.

Intimidation will play a factor here, and so will their offense that can adjust to any opponent. Lue’s offense works in such a way that it, if a team’s defense takes something away, the Cavs can simply move on to another facet of their game with just as much success.

With Nance Jr. and LeBron James holding down the paint, and shooters to stretch the floor, defense still will not matter much to Cleveland, as they can go point-for-point with the very best teams out there, even on dysfunctional nights.

This particular Cavaliers iteration, though, is still relatively new. Jordan Clarkson has not quite figured it all out, and George Hill is showing his age next to the ageless wonder, LeBron James.

The problem, also, with playing no defense, is that shots do have to fall. Sure, the Cavaliers can make them, but as everyone knows, sometimes the ball just does not go in. If Cleveland has a couple of bad shooting nights, they will get blown out due to lack of defensive commitment.

Unlike the past three years, Cleveland has to prove themselves and play to their highest level to reach the NBA Finals. Then, after three hard-fought series wins, they will have to face the best of the other conference.

No easy task.

No. 2 Seed – Boston Celtics

Boston has the best coach in the NBA. That is enough of a reason why they can win the Larry O’Brien trophy, but let us explore some more anyway.

Brad Stevens has the ability to make something out of nothing. The Celtics, right now, are a team with unbelievably bad injury luck at the worst time, and they are still winning.

That is due to the incredible bench play and next-man-up strategy that the Celtics employ. Their offense is weak, but their defense is the best in the league. The system is flawless, and almost every team in the league would fall victim to it at least once in a seven-game series.

Owning an opponents’ field goal percentage under 44 percent is no joke. Boston ranks tenth-best in turnover ratio, and the rebounding is just as impressive. Surprisingly, even though their offense can be a bit anemic, they are second best in three-point percentage at 37.9 percent.

It defies logic, but even without Irving, Brown, Smart and Hayward, this team has steadfastly held the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. And they are only going to get healthier from here. If anyone can beat Golden State at its own defensive game, or hold the fast-paced Rockets offense in check, it is the Celtics.

They can, and just might win the whole thing.

But before one gets too high on Stevens’ ability to will his team to victory, it is important to remember that their returning players will, like Wall, have severe rust to shake off.

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The Celtics could be without Irving for the first round of the playoffs. (Photo by Brian Babineau/Getty Images)

Irving is coming off of a knee surgery, and his game hinges on his quick legs, handles, and iso scoring ability. That will not be easy to return to during his first minutes on the floor. Smart cannot return until May if Boston is still playing. And there is no telling who might go down in the meantime, with the Celtics’ luck as of late.

The key to a title for Boston is its defense. So, if a team can somehow figure out how to get the better of it for four games, then it is a wrap for this team. They do not have the firepower necessary to go shot-for-shot with some of the offensively-minded teams in the NBA like the Cavaliers can.

No. 1 Seed – Toronto Raptors

Toronto owns a top-five offense and a top-five defense. They have the probable coach of the year, in Dwane Casey. They have DeRozan, who is only getting better. Lowry and Ibaka are still reliable, and they have the deepest bench in the entire NBA.

Opposing teams have to pick their poison with the Raptors, and even then, still might not get what they chose. They can beat you with their smothering team defense, or their ability to match points on the outside or the inside.

Toronto owns the best record in the East for a reason. They also own a massive home court advantage, and as the locked-in, one seed will keep it throughout the playoffs. This more driven and focused Raptors team will be a legitimate force in the playoffs, and it is almost assured that a number two or three seeded teams will have to be the ones to take them out if they do not reach the finals.

As far as winning it all goes, this might the only team that can beat the Houston Rockets by locking down their shooters. The communication on the floor is excellent, and the Rockets only go as their three-point shooting does. The Raptors perimeter defense not only can win them the title but can do it in less than seven games.

Unlike Cleveland, however, Toronto’s reputation is working heavily against them.

The Raptors have fizzled out in various rounds of the playoffs for years, and they will need to get that monkey off of their backs, both with their play and with their overall mental position. Toronto has, perhaps, more to prove than any other Eastern Conference team in the playoffs, regardless of owning the top seed.

They will still have to earn any respect they feel they deserve, which will either fuel them to a title or be what burns them yet again.

 

Check back here on Saturday for the reasons each Western Conference team can and cannot win the NBA Finals! 

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NBA Finals

Potential NBA Finals matchups and outcomes

The NBA Finals are mere months away. The playoff picture has yet to be set in stone, but there are clear frontrunners in each conference.

Odds are, it would take some massive upsets to see any other teams playing on May 31 than the five we’re about to discuss. Not to say it couldn’t happen, but considering records and reputations, it’s unlikely.

With that in mind, here are the most likely 2018 NBA Finals matchups.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors (Part IV)

Let’s get this one out of the way first.

This season has been a roller coaster for Cleveland. There has been disappointment, turmoil, turnover, redemption and mediocrity. In their last 10 games, they have come away with five wins. In the midst of a brutal six game road trip, they seem to either thoroughly impress, or inspire no confidence whatsoever.

The Warriors have had their own struggles this season. Although the word “struggles” should be taken with a pound of salt. Golden State’s “struggles” don’t even amount to the worst teams’ best nights.

NBA Finals

A fourth straight finals matchup between Cleveland and Golden State is still possible. (Photo by Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports)

Stemming from technical foul trouble, injury woes, and running into what amounts to complacency, this Warriors team seems less inspired than previous iterations. It has even reached the point where coach Steve Kerr let the players coach during a game against the lottery-bound Suns.

When playoff basketball arrives, however, it’s simply unwise to bet too much money against LeBron James or a team with four All-Stars. They could feasibly be bound for yet another clash in the NBA Finals. If that happens, it would be reasonable to expect the series could be the best yet.

Both teams have breezed through the playoffs in the past three years. But the targets on their backs have never been larger than they are now. Chinks in the armor have formed, and the other teams in the playoffs will do their best to exploit the weaknesses.

If they do meet, though, expect the series to be sloppier than the previous three. Expect it to be more defensively oriented, with less scoring and chippier play. It will also probably go the distance, as Cleveland and LeBron aren’t going to want a repeat of last year’s five game showing.

In the end, though, the Warriors’ four All-Stars and their chemistry will be too much for the new-look Cavaliers. The coaching and cohesiveness of the offense and defense will win a one game series, as we’ve seen in the regular season over and over again.

Prediction: Warriors in 7

Finals MVP: Kevin Durant

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Houston Rockets

Again, this potential matchup is predicated on LeBron James’ ability to will the Cavaliers to the finals. An historic eighth straight trip to the NBA Finals will silence even some of his most vitriolic haters, especially with this roster.

Houston’s path will undoubtedly go through Golden State, seeing them achieve their ultimate goal of dethroning the Warriors.

Cleveland has dealt with the incredible offensive capabilities of Golden State three years in a row, but that experience won’t amount to much if this matchup comes to fruition. Add in the confidence Houston will bring into the series having defeated a juggernaut, and the Rockets will be a completely different animal.

Houston has come out on top of both of the regular season games against the Cavaliers. If they are healthy going into the NBA Finals, there is no reason to expect that trend won’t continue. The three-point abilities of this team are like nothing the NBA has ever seen. The Cavs won’t be able to defend the arc enough to make a difference, and they certainly cannot match the barrage of long range shots the Rockets will put up.

LeBron certainly won’t let his team be swept, but all of his effort will simply result in yet another finals loss on his resume.

Prediction: Rockets in 5

Finals MVP: James Harden

Toronto Raptors vs. Houston Rockets

These are two teams whose styles couldn’t contrast more starkly.

Toronto has earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference through defense and fundamental play. Their offense features plenty of mid-range and low-post shots, going to the three-pointer only when it’s there for the taking. Coach Dwane Casey is the frontrunner for Coach of the Year due to his ability to keep his message and style fresh through the 82 game season.

Houston, obviously, is the most offensive-minded team in the league. Chris Paul, James Harden and Eric Gordon always have a green light behind the three-point line. Coach Mike D’Antoni does not pull his punches flexing the team’s shooting strengths. The Rockets play almost no defense, but it’s essentially irrelevant considering their ability to score.

This would be the most fun NBA Finals matchup to watch for hardcore fans. Contrasting styles don’t always make for the best games in other sports. Consider the 2014 Super Bowl featuring the NFL’s best offense (Denver Broncos) getting smothered by the best defense (Seattle Seahawks) in the league, for example. But in basketball, it just means either philosophy could prevail during any given game.

A Raptors-Rockets finals series would more than likely go the full seven games. The Raptors seem like one of the only squads in the NBA that could halt the Rockets’ attack with regularity. So, again, it comes down to a one game series.

In one game, though, bet on the Rockets’ shots to fall, and bet on the Raptors playing hard but ultimately failing to match the offensive production. It would be close, but James Harden and Chris Paul would finally get the playoff monkey off of their backs.

Prediction: Houston in 7

Finals MVP: James Harden

Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors

Two terrific defenses coming out on top of their respective conferences would be a shocking turn of events considering the NBA’s current identity of offense over everything. But that’s exactly what this matchup would feature.

While Golden State’s defense has taken a step back this season, they are still ranked within the NBA’s top-10 defenses. Toronto’s defensive rating has fluctuated from game-to-game, but they have been solidly within the top-5 all season long.

NBA Finals

Kyle Lowry blows by Stephen Curry. (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)

This series would come down to coaching. Steve Kerr vs. Dwane Casey doesn’t sound like the most exciting storyline, but for old-school NBA fans, it would be a welcome change from the hero-ball driven games to which the league has become accustomed.

Given that take, one could expect the coach with the longer playoff resume to come out on top. However, Casey wouldn’t be an easy out. This Raptors team would make life difficult for these Warriors. Frustration and contested shots would be deciding factors in every single game.

The Raptors’ bench is also on par with, if not better than, Golden State’s. That wouldn’t be a huge issue considering the Warriors’ fantastic starting lineup, but, contrary to popular belief, they actually do rely on their bench’s offense.

These finals would be hotly contested, and would be some fantastic television. It would also undoubtedly end in another rivalry being formed regardless of the outcome. In the end though, the surprise factor of the Raptors can steal enough possessions and sink enough mid-range shots to dethrone the champions.

Prediction: Raptors in 6

Finals MVP: DeMar DeRozan

Boston Celtics vs. Houston Rockets

Another matchup featuring contrasting styles, a Boston-Houston NBA Finals could go many different ways.

Boston’s defense is superb, led by coach Brad Stevens’ commitment to that end of the floor. The Celtics are a long team, concerned with blocking low-post shots and challenging everything. The offense is a different story, however.

Kyrie Irving has been fantastic in his ability to create and make shots. Irving cannot play every minute of every game however. Rozier and Smart have been serviceable during his minutes on the bench, but it’s hard to match that kind of production without another superstar on the team. Matching the Rockets’ offense is a very, very tall order for Boston.

NBA Finals

James Harden upset about a call during the most recent Celtics-Rockets matchup. (Photo by Michel Dwyer/Associated Press)

If the team defense and coaching isn’t rattled by Houston’s ability to put up points in a hurry, then Boston can absolutely steal a game or two. But star power often wins out in the NBA, even if smart money is on defense over offense. That would make it the Rockets’ series to lose.

Prediction: Rockets in 6

Finals MVP: James Harden

Boston Celtics vs. Golden State Warriors

Brad Stevens is semi-arguably the best coach in the NBA. Steve Kerr is probably one of the most progressive coaches in the game today. This series would truly be a meeting of the minds; a scheme vs. scheme matchup that could go either way.

Kevin Durant and the Golden State offense won’t be as baffled by Boston’s defense as some other teams would. By the same reasoning, Horford and the Celtics’ defense wouldn’t be as rattled by Golden State’s offense.

This is would be a very even matchup, regardless of Boston’s offensive shortcomings. Stevens is one of the only coaches in the NBA that could make the Warriors play the Celtics game, rather than trying to match theirs. Not to say that would completely baffle Golden State’s “big four,” but, frustration would come into play.

If the Warriors have one weakness, it’s the fiery attitude of their lineup. Durant, Green, Pachulia and Young all have type-A personalities that Stevens can exploit to his advantage. These attitudes, however, are also a strength that helps the Warriors win close games.

NBA Finals

Brad Stevens and Steve Kerr coached against each other in 2017’s NBA All-Star Game. (Photo by NBAE via Getty Images)

Either team could win this particular series. If it comes to be, the Warriors would probably be underprepared, looking past this Celtics team due to their offensive struggles. Coming down to the wire, though, the smartest choice is taking the experience over the ifs buts and maybes.

Prediction: Warriors in 7 (in OT)

Finals MVP: Stephen Curry

Featured image by John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports

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Kevin Love DeMar Derozan mental health

Love, DeRozan and the conversation we should all be having

One in six. 44.7 million. 18.3 percent. That’s how many people age 18 or older live with some form of mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Almost every adult in this country knows six other people. There is virtually no chance that you don’t know someone who fights one of these battles. Please think about that for a moment. Take the time to count out six people in your life who mean something to you.

Have any of those six people ever come forward and told you that they experience some sort of day-to-day struggle against, maybe, an anxiety or depression-related disorder?

If your answer was yes, then that’s not a problem at all. It’s not hard to be a good friend to someone who lives with a mental health issue. Simply check in often. Listen when they speak to you about it. More importantly, listen when they don’t wish to speak about it.

If your answer was no, then you are now privy to extremely disturbing information. Many people with mental illnesses choose silence over assistance. They would like to believe that they are nobody’s problem to be solved; no one’s burden to bear.

Or maybe you count yourself within the ranks of those who have to live life followed by this particular shadow. I do. So do some of the smartest and most successful people I’ve ever met.

It’s not discriminatory. Mental illness, regardless of “severity,” affects people of every race, religion, social status and tax bracket.

Just ask Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan.

Opening up

Love and DeRozan will make a combined $155,577,000 by the end of the 2019-20 NBA season. They’re provided with free travel, hotel accommodations, meals, training facilities, clothes and shoes. They both have lucrative sponsorship deals. On top of that, they’ll both get a share of the $20 million bonus that’s divided up between every player that participates in the NBA playoffs.

That money didn’t stop Kevin Love from having a full-blown panic attack during the third quarter of a game against the Hawks on Nov. 5. It didn’t keep DeRozan from tweeting a rather telling song lyric.

In an interview with The Star, published on Feb 25, DeRozan opened up about his struggles with depression. In it, he says, “We all got feelings… all of that. Sometimes… it gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you.”

Kevin Love DeMar Derozan mental health

DeRozan has said he’s “amazed” by the amount of support he’s gotten after speaking about his depression. (Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Most telling was the short statement in which the 28-year-old speaks on the roller coaster that life with depression can be. He says that he has “various nights,” alleging that any given day could hold myriad emotions and states of mind. He said his life has always been that way.

Just nine days later, Kevin Love published an article with The Players’ Tribune called “Everyone Is Going Through Something.” The story chronicles his own previously repressed conflicts with his own mental health.

He reflects on unlearning a playbook of behaviors taught to most men and boys that caused him to ignore any previous signs that he might need some support. Instead, over 29 years, he substituted healthy coping mechanisms with often-adopted strategy of “manning up.”

We are all human

It’s easy to see athletes as real-life superheroes. Seeing the kind of athleticism they exhibit night in and night out can cause the public to paint them as something they’re not: mythical creatures who were put on this Earth to entertain us in a modern-day gladiator arena.

It’s what causes people like Laura Ingraham to tell LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” As if being an athlete somehow bars you from having opinions and ideas about the world you live in.

I’ll admit that I’ve been part of that problem. It’s hard not to when you watch Aaron Rodgers execute three Hail-Mary touchdowns in the same calendar year, or when you see Michael Jordan dunk from the free-throw line. The incredible feats we see on any given night are almost laughably impossible.

But once they shed their uniforms and step away from the flashing lights, they’re just people.

That was the common thread through both Love and DeRozan’s stories. The idea that everyone is vulnerable and nobody is immune to this kind of problem.

Panic

The most eye-opening part of Kevin Love’s article was his detailed description of his panic attack. After a timeout in the third quarter, Love knew he was not physically able to re-enter the game, but couldn’t quite get a grasp on what was happening. He retreated to the Cavaliers’ locker room knowing something wasn’t right.

I was running from room to room, like I was looking for something I couldn’t find. Really I was just hoping my heart would stop racing. It was like my body was trying to say to me, ‘You’re about to die.’ I ended up on the floor in the training room, lying on my back, trying to get enough air to breathe. (Kevin Love, “Everyone Is Going Through Something)

Anyone who has experienced a panic attack knows the exact feeling he is talking about. It’s a frightening experience that is hard to put into words. To someone who may not know what a panic attack looks or feels like, it may seem silly or overdramatic. But allow me to give you my thoughts on this particular passage.

I’m someone who has not only dealt with this kind of thing before, but who writes for a living and has extensive creative writing education as a part of my college degree. With that being said, I have never in my life thought of anything that quite explains a panic attack as well as “looking for something I couldn’t find.” That is exactly what it feels like. A sense of indescribable hopelessness and fear, as if nothing is going to be alright ever again.

He may be 6-foot-10 and carry double-double career average, but in that moment, he probably felt the same way so many of us have: paralyzed, small, weak and scared.

Idolization

Knowing how we put athletes on a literal and figurative pedestal, it must have been unspeakably hard to come forward like DeRozan and Love have. Their stories have been met with support from fans and players alike, but showing vulnerability like this isn’t easy. It’s not easy for anybody. So, try to imagine what it must have been like unveiling these things when the eyes of the world are upon them.

Kevin Love DeMar Derozan mental health

Kevin Love opens up about his recent struggles with his mental health. (Photo by Brad Rempel)

Men, women, boys and girls look up to them. They dream of achieving the invincibility and everlasting admiration of being a professional athlete. The idea that even one of these people would perceive some sort of weakness of character for coming forward with this personal information must have been hard to cope with.

But, as DeRozan said in his admission of his battle with depression, “we’re all human.” All the credit in the world goes to them for showing the individuals who look up to athletes that no battle needs to be fought alone.

NBPA action

In a Feb. 19 interview with SB Nation, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts spoke on NBA players’ mental wellness.

“We’ve been naive — I’m being kind when I say naive — in thinking that we didn’t have to address and make sure that we were giving as much attention to our players’ mental wellness, as we were their physical.” (Michele Roberts via SB Nation)

This quote and interview were before the DeRozan article was made public. That suggests, perhaps, this is more pressing of an issue than can be expressed by just two players coming forward.

Roberts went on to say that development of a mental health program is in its “early stages,” and that the NBPA has only made one hire. But work is being done and progress is being made in regards to tending to mental wellness.

She wants the program to be funded by the players’ union and NBA teams, yet have it operated separately from both. She cites potential concerns regarding players not utilizing the resource because they are afraid that information would affect their standing within the team.

Confidentiality would be paramount to the program, which speaks to the larger stigma surrounding the topic of mental health. Especially in the hyper-masculine world of professional men’s basketball.

Significance in sports

The mental health conversation in this country needs to continue to grow and change. If over 18 percent of the American adult population experiences something, we need to talk about it.

The problem is, so many mental health issues can be ignored, ill-defined, or even misdiagnosed. I’m not an expert, but it seems as if conversation and openness about what ails someone is the best place to start.

That’s why these two coming forward could signal a paradigm shift. Public figures seen as folk heroes by many, telling the world that even they are not exempt from these feelings can, should and has garnered attention.

Love and DeRozan are not the first athletes to admit to these kinds of problems though.

Kevin Love DeMar Derozan mental health

Kelly Oubre Jr. of the Washington Wizards was the third NBA player in two weeks to come forward with mental wellness problems. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Picabo Street, Ricky Williams, Joey Votto, Mike Tyson and many others have documented struggles with depression. Ken Griffey, Jr. took over 250 aspirin tablets during a suicide attempt in 1988. Rick Rypien, a Vancouver Canucks and Manitoba Moose center, succeeded in a suicide attempt in 2011. Kelly Oubre Jr. followed Love and DeRozan’s lead, just hours after Love’s article was published, opening up about his struggles on NBC Sports Washington’s Wizards Tipoff Podcast.

Significance in culture

It’s hard to know how to frame all of that information. Maybe it does actually provide hope that these conversations can become more normal. But, it could also just be more info to sweep under the rug, so we can pretend it’s not happening.

These kinds of talks that we have with ourselves and others are uncomfortable. They are oppressive, difficult and complicated. What’s worse is that when depression is getting the best of you, you may not want to talk about it. When it’s not, you probably don’t want to bring yourself down by hashing it out.

Athletes, movie stars, musicians and politicians can all help steer us in the right direction when it comes to opening up. This is where “normal” people come into play.

When people in the public eye use their platform to talk about a cause that is important to them, it’s not just so they can hear themselves speak. It’s almost always because they want it discussed by the masses. They want to open up a dialogue.

Leonardo DiCaprio uses his platform to raise awareness about climate change. The main talking point at this year’s Academy Awards was putting an end to sexual assault. But all of this means nothing unless it affects the public in a way that causes conversation and change.

Love and DeRozan are not discussing their mental health because they want you to feel bad for them. That would be completely futile, because they are multi-millionaires living their dream of being professional basketball players.

They are opening up to change the way we talk about these issues. I can’t speak to their exact intentions, but my gut tells me they want people, who are in similar situations, to know that they’re not alone.

Conclusion

You’ll notice that not once in this article have I used the words “suffer from.” It’s a common phrase to put in front of mental health terminology. In my opinion, though, it’s overused and inaccurate.

People who experience some sort of mental health defect should not be told what they do and do not “suffer from.” They are not in some perpetual state of suffering. They are simply people who live their lives carrying some extra weight.

Living is an obligation. Suffering is a choice.

To those of you who know what it’s like to deal with some of these issues, or to those of you who act as an ally to them, please always remember this: Our struggles do not define us. However internalized or externalized our problems may be, they are just a part of us. Not our whole, but simply a piece of an intricate puzzle that makes us the people we are.

Sports are universal and eternal. They have a way of capturing our hearts and imaginations, just like the best movie you’ve ever seen, or your favorite album. That is why I choose to believe that these stories will resonate. Because if our “superheroes” can tell us that they aren’t perfect, then maybe we can all start to accept ourselves and others as such.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit this link which features only a small number of the wide range of resources that are available.

 

Featured image by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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playoffs

Predicting NBA playoff seeding

The NBA playoffs are almost upon us. Scheduled to start on April 14, the playoff picture is anything but concrete.

Injuries, fatigue, rest and a general agreement that seeding doesn’t really matter once the playoffs start, are all signs that anything could happen. The top two teams in each conference are surely safe, but the three through eight seeds are most certainly up for grabs.

With that in mind, here are some predictions on how the playoff seeding might shake out.

Eastern Conference

No. 8 Seed – Miami Heat

Eight seeds are the hardest to predict, for obvious reasons. The Heat, however seem as if they’ll wrap up a spot in the playoffs.

playoffs

The Miami Heat are an unexpected playoff contender this year. (Photo by Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports)

Their closest competition is the Detroit Pistons. Considering both teams’ remaining schedule is very comparable, the safe bet here is Miami. They are a more complete team with a battle-tested coach.

The Pistons would have to win all 10 of their remaining games against teams with losing records, and chalk up some upset wins, too. Even then, the Heat would probably have to drop some games they’re supposed to win. It seems as if the Blake Griffin pickup won’t be enough this year.

No. 7 Seed- Washington Wizards

The Wizards are a solid team, featuring fundamental play and a tough coaching matchup. They currently sit as the East’s fifth seed, but their schedule is ridiculously difficult down the home stretch.

11 of the Wizards’ 17 remaining games come against teams with winning records. With star point guard John Wall still potentially up to four weeks away from returning to the lineup, the Wizards are going to drop games. Washington is 10-6 since Wall had knee surgery.

Bradley Beal can certainly pick up some slack with his fantastic shooting ability. But the Wizards will need more help than that to stay in the fifth slot, or rise in the standings.

No. 6 Seed – Milwaukee Bucks

With a pretty even schedule against winning and losing teams remaining, the Bucks should sit in the seven seed.

playoffs

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks look for a second straight playoff berth. (Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

The young team, led by the Greek Freak, has been a mini-surprise in the 2017-2018 season. The Bucks fired their head coach in the middle of the season, causing some to leave the team for dead. But under interim head coach Jon Horst, they have found an identity.

That identity is give the ball to Antetokounmpo at every opportunity, sit back, and watch the fireworks. If teams find a way to guard Giannis, their three-point game is solid enough to rack up the wins necessary to play some springtime ball.

No. 5 Seed – Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers, who had the most games in the NBA after the All-Star break, still have 19 games remaining.

Their path to the playoffs, however, is shockingly easy. Only six of their next 19 games come against teams with a winning record. With the youth on this team, fatigue will more than likely not be a problem down the stretch.

One thing to keep an eye on, though, is the inexperience and injury history on the team. The major pieces on the 76ers have never played a minute of playoff basketball. The players who have been to the playoffs are veterans, which is a nice way of saying that they’re old.

But these are mainly problems they’ll face once the playoffs roll around. The push to secure seeding shouldn’t be an issue for Philadelphia.

No. 4 Seed – Indiana Pacers

There’s no reason to think that the Pacers can’t continue to surprise the league. Their schedule is undeniably tough going forward, but the team has continued to manufacture wins.

Victor Oladipo is the focal point here. His meteoric rise during the 2017-2018 campaign is the largest part of the team’s success. Bogdanovic, Turner and Jefferson are all solid role-players, but Oladipo’s 24 points per game are still catching opposing teams off guard.

No. 3 Seed – Cleveland Cavaliers

playoffs

LeBron James and the new-look Cavaliers made it to the 2016 NBA Finals, despite not being the top seed. (Photo by Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

When discussing why the Cavaliers won’t fall in the standings, it would suffice to just write the words, “LeBron James.”

Apart from James, though, the new pieces are fitting nicely in Cleveland. They have not lived up to the sky-high expectations formed just before the All-Star break, but that would have been nearly impossible. But, the team has been, without question, an upgrade from the previous iteration.

Cleveland’s schedule is fairly even going forward. Judging from their tumultuous season so far, the Cavs will probably lose some games they are supposed to win, and win some games they might be slated to lose.

With their experience, drive to prove themselves, and The King, the third seed is more than likely where they will stand going into the playoffs.

No. 2 Seed – Boston Celtics

The Celtics have the best coach in the league, by almost anyone’s measurement. Kyrie Irving is having a fantastic season, and their roster is complimentary to the team’s play style from top to bottom.

Offense has been a huge issue for Boston, recently. They currently sit at 16th in NBA offensive rankings. That’s hardly what one would expect from the team with the East’s second best record. But these shortcomings speak to the Celtics’ strengths more than anything.

The defense is fantastic. When watching Boston play, the team defense is undeniable. Coach Brad Stevens has a real commitment to the little things that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. That is what will keep Boston at the second seed.

No. 1 Seed – Toronto Raptors

playoffs

DeMar Derozan has led the Raptors to the East’s best record. (Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

The decision on who would hold the Eastern Conference’s number one seed came down to who would win the remaining matchups between the Celtics and Raptors. The race for the top spot going into the playoffs could very well come down to those two games.

But, more faith needs to be put in the resume Toronto has built during the season.

The Raptors own the NBA’s fourth best offense and the third best defense. Coach Dwane Casey has clearly reached a new level. He’s reached these players and motivated them in a way that’s evident during every game.

The stars, Derozan and Lowry are clear leaders. Serge Ibaka has accepted his role as a third option. The bench is deep, and dangerous.

The schedule is tough, but the Raptors are tougher.

Western Conference

No. 8 Seed – Denver Nuggets

Yet again, the decision here came from examining remaining strength of schedule. The Los Angeles Clippers the Utah Jazz lose that particular race.

playoffs

The young core of the Denver Nuggets has been incredibly effective this season. (Photo by Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today Sports)

Not to sell them short, however, the young talent on the Nuggets has definitely impressed. Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Nikola Jokic create a solid core that can keep them in any given game.

A paint-focused offense, and a serviceable defense should secure them a spot in the playoffs. It doesn’t hurt that Los Angeles has experienced roster shake-ups, and Utah is one of the streakiest teams in the league.

No. 7 Seed – Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota was once as high as the number three seed. But losing Jimmy Butler to a meniscus injury has plunged them into a potential bubble team. Being that the West is so highly contested, that has proved to be a killer.

Butler was averaging the most minutes in the NBA, contributing 22.2 points, 5 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game. Having a star go down with an injury would be a problem for any team. But it seems like this particular loss couldn’t have come to a more impactful player at a more important time.

The Timberwolves should have him back by the time the playoffs roll around, which is great news. Thibodeau and the Timberwolves need to keep the ship afloat until then, however.

No. 6 Seed – Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have been trending downwards in the past 10 games. They are 6-4 in these contests, needing a 43-point performance by Westbrook in a come back win against the lowly Phoenix Suns.

playoffs

The “OK3” have underachieved, but they can all still be a force to be reckoned with. (Photo by Layne Murdoch Sr./NBAE via Getty Images)

Having them at the sixth seed is merely a belief in their defense and star power. The “OK3” are a force to be reckoned with in any game. George, Anthony and Westbrook hardly ever all contribute at a high level within the same game. But, all three of them are capable of going off, even if it is at the expense of the other two’s stat line.

Billy Donovan, once a scapegoat for the team’s unimpressive showings, has seemed to figure out the right balance. The bench is irrelevant here, as having three Type-A personalities in the same starting lineup dictate how the contest will be played.

Faith needs to be put in these three players, as none of them will accept missing the playoffs entirely.

No. 5 Seed – New Orleans Pelicans

Anthony Davis has been an absolute assassin in recent weeks. He’s had six 40-plus point performances since the beginning of February. All six of those games featured 10 or more rebounds.

Since DeMarcus Cousins went down, it’s no question that Davis has accepted is role as the number one, two and three options for the Pelicans. But it is a little ridiculous to think he can keep putting up these kinds of numbers every night.

If he has an off night, it’s hard to trust Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to will New Orleans to a win by themselves. With the kind of drive he’s been showing, however, Davis can keep them no lower than the number five seed.

No. 4 Seed – San Antonio Spurs

Similar to the Cavaliers, all one needs to say here is, “Gregg Popovich” to inspire confidence in the Spurs.

playoffs

Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich will no doubt be the determining factors regarding the Spurs’ seeding. (Photo by Darren Abate/Associated Press)

Kawhi Leonard has only played in nine games since the beginning of the NBA season. He said in an interview on Wednesday that he hopes to return to the lineup this season. When asked for a specific timetable, he only said that he wants to return “soon.”

Soon means nothing, but if he does get the opportunity to return, don’t expect he’ll need an adjustment period. Kawhi is a premiere two-way talent that has been focused on playing since he left the lineup.

Airing on the side of a hiccup-less re-introduction to the starting lineup, the Spurs can hold their ground and even rise in the standings.

No. 3 Seed – Portland Trailblazers

Damian Lillard is now in the MVP conversation. CJ McCollum is capable of scoring 50 points if he has the ball enough. Aminu and Turner are solid wings that the team can lean on in the case of a shooting drought.

Portland notably upset the Warriors right before the All-Star break. They lost the first meeting, though, and have not been able to beat Houston yet. Anyone else in the league is on notice when playing the Trailblazers. The offense is great, the defense is quick, and the schedule is manageable.

No. 2 Seed – Houston Rockets

The Rockets embody the hope of every team that the Warriors can be overtaken in the Western Conference playoffs. And they still can.

The strength of schedule is, again, what makes the difference here. The Rockets play 12 teams with winning records, to the Warriors’ 11. Both teams play 7 teams with losing records. Since the schedules are so comparable, the trust has to be put in the defending champions.

Houston has an incredible three-point game, and the rest of the offense is only slightly less polished. The addition of Chris Paul has been revelation, and Clint Capela has risen to new heights. James Harden is running away with the MVP race.

But over their remaining games, the four Warriors All-Stars will intimidate opposing offenses slightly more.

No. 1 Seed – Golden State Warriors

As stated above, intimidation is the main reason the Warriors will probably sit in the West’s top spot heading into the playoffs.

Golden State are champions until they lose, and losing is the only thing at which the NBA can count on the Warriors being bad. Thinking that this particular team has grown complacent and aren’t concerned with owning the one seed, is a mistake.

playoffs

Golden State still has the most impressive roster in the NBA, regardless of their record. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

All four of the team’s superstars are hyper-competitive, and Houston taking away their spotlight has surely made them hungrier to assert their dominance over the conference. The Rockets and Warriors are certainly on a collision-course, but the Warriors will probably still own the regular season.

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